It’s really good to have Katy B back. Born Kathleen Brien in Peckham, South London, she became a figurehead of resurgent UK underground dance genres in the late 2000s. She helped break both dubstep (with her breakthrough hit “Katy on a Mission” in 2010), and UK funky (with the Ms Dynamite collaboration “Lights On” the following year) into the charts, and throughout her career her musical collaborator and executive producer has been DJ Geeneus, founder of the former pirate radio station Rinse FM.
Her songs documented the lives and loves of her generation of clubbers, her writing style and voice meshing effortlessly with house, UK garage, and all the other club sounds as only someone who knew the dancefloor intimately could do. But since her 2016 album project Honey – a set of collaborations with an all-star cast of super-credible international producers – she’s stepped away from the limelight… until last month’s Peace and Offerings EP, released by Rinse FM’s in-house label, that is.
At eight tracks, it’s almost an album, and it was a bold statement of intent. There are no upbeat club tunes – just music that partly harks back to Katy’s teenage years singing along to American R&B and neo-soul, and partly fits perfectly into the new soul generation of the UK music scene. “Because I'd had so much time off,” she says, “and because I knew this wasn't going to come out on a major label, I could just turn up to the studio and write whatever I was feeling that day. Because the original plan was to release it during lockdown, even though I was also writing songs that were uptempo, I definitely thought ‘why would you put these out now, when nobody can go out?’ It seemed a bit of a waste, so I saw it as an opportunity to release something that's a bit more chilled out and reflective.”
The connections she makes between ‘90s and early ‘00s American R&B, and the more modern styles of today’s London – there are plenty of hints of Afrobeats, dancehall, drum’n’bass and more in the EP – remind us of longer, deeper strands in music. Katy has always been a serious musician, a graduate of the BRIT School and Goldsmiths College music courses, and her writing brings out the soul and jazz undercurrents in everything she does. “It's funny,” she says. “Just recently I covered SWV’s ‘Use Your Heart’ for the [BBC] Radio 1 session that I did, and the melody is so jazzy on that song. All the notes and intervals are really tricky, so I had to keep rewinding the track to listen and learn them. And that gave me a real deja vu to being 12 or 13, going over certain ad-libs dozens of times, rewinding my CD. It was a nice moment.”
To celebrate her return, and her musical expertise, here are Katy’s picks of six classic soul and R&B songs that set the tone for Peace and Offerings:
“So I've been playing piano since lockdown, and this is one I've learned. Honestly my housemate must have literally wanted to throw my piano at me from hearing this song every day. It's got that Jaco Pistorius sample, it's super jazzy, and I just love the marriage of that bassline with their super sweet R&B voices. They sound so sweet and natural but are just amazing musicians – just learning that song for Radio 1 really brought it home, as those songs are really hard. I actually got into [this song] more in later life, as I was more of a "Weak" girl in my teenage years. SWV definitely reminds me of that, but "Rain" came maybe a little later in life, when I was 18 or 19, and I only learned it properly recently. It's a slow burner.”
Faith Evans “Ain’t Nobody”
“I used to sing this with my friend as a duo, her name was Cherelle and we were called KC. We did a talent show at Brixton Academy, I think we must have been 15 or 16, and Richard Blackwood was presenting the show. Afterwards when we came off he kind of told us off. It was an intense experience because we were so nervous, then he was all ‘young girls shouldn't be singing about things like that!’ We didn't even know what the words were, really. But Faith’s love story with Biggie was so public, and she was such a princess and the first lady of that time, but at the same time you felt her heart break. I think you felt that more strongly because you knew the story. I wasn't really into hip-hop at that time; I got into it later when I was in a live hip hop band, and I love it now. Even so, the very male lyrics often don't click with me as much as R&B does, as much as someone like Faith Evans.”
K.P. & Envyi “Swing My Way”
“As I thought about picking these selections, I thought that I really needed an R&B song that's uptempo and has been an inspiration to me – and also signals the kind of stuff I'll be doing in future. I used to have this song on CD; I just love it, I love the energy of it, I love the video. It has a sort of UK garage rhythm, and I'd love to know the story behind that. Maybe [in Atlanta] there's some local club sound that just happens to sound like garage. I remember Darkchild [the US mega R&B producer Rodney Jerkins] said ‘Say My Name’ by Destiny's Child was originally a garage song. He'd come over to England and was like, ‘what's this gar-arge thing?’ But then they hated it and he made it R&B again. Obviously it's one of the best songs ever so that worked out, but I like the story.”
The Roots feat. Erykah Badu “You Got Me”
“On that topic of the UK crossover, I picked this definitely because of [The Roots leader/producer/hip-hop historian] Questlove's drums at the end, how it goes into drum 'n' bass and jungle breaks. That was definitely influential on [Peace and Offerings closing track] “Daydreaming on a Tuesday” for me. I've always wanted to make something of that kind of vibe. Erykah Badu's on it and Jill Scott co-wrote it, both of whom are my favourite singers, and it's just a super sweet song. I feel like this Roots, Erykah Badu, D'Angelo soul vibe is having more influence over here now, and I really hope there's more of that!”
Summer Walker “Session 32”
“When this came out I listened to it so many times on repeat I half expected to get a message from Spotify going ‘you OK, hun?’ But I just think it's really lovely – it just sounds like a voice note or something, but that's what I want to listen to. Just play me the song. When Gee [Geeneus] is worrying about mixdowns, I'm the one going ‘aaah it doesn't matter!’ because I don't know anything about that. I like the raw emotion of the song, just her voice and acoustic guitar. It's a really great example of how a song can sound like a demo and make you like it even more than if it's super produced. Saying that, it works so well because it's the exception for her – I don't know if it would have the same impact if it was part of a whole acoustic album. The fact it feels like an interlude makes it feel like a window into her songwriting, because you feel like you're with her when she's just written it.”
Nuyorican Soul “Black Gold of the Sun”
“It's club, it's jazz, it's soul... it's produced by two massive house DJs so it's got that sound that is right for the club. It's almost the perfect record, I think. I don't know which version to choose – I was going to pick the 4Hero remix with the drum'n'bass jungle ending, but that’s the thing, all the versions are good! There's also the original that they covered [by Rotary Connection] with Minnie Riperton. You absolutely cannot go wrong with it. I would have loved to have been old enough to go out in the ‘90s when stuff like this was coming out, and soul was mixing with drum 'n' bass. But I was born in my era, and I've had some good times too, I can't lie.”
Cover Credit: Rinse
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.